Ghent and Amsterdam, and What I Read

Ghent. Photo by Chris Foster

We got back on Monday from a packed week in Ghent and Amsterdam. Despite the chilly, showery weather and a slightly disappointing Airbnb experience in Ghent, it was a great trip overall. Our charming little B&B apartment in Broek in Waterland, a 20-minute bus ride from Amsterdam, more than made up for the somewhat lackluster accommodation in Belgium and was a perfect base for exploring the area. With our three-day, all-inclusive regional travel passes we were free to hop on as many trams and buses as we wanted.

On Saturday we crammed in lots of Amsterdam’s main attractions: the Rijksmuseum, the Begijnhof cloisters, the Botanical Gardens and the Anne Frank House, interspersed with window shopping, a rainy picnic lunch and an Indonesian takeaway dinner eaten by a canal. I also got to visit a more off-the-beaten-track attraction I’d spotted in our guide book: De Poezenboot or “The Cat Boat,” a home for strays moored on the Singel canal. Alas, the resident kitties were not as friendly as many we met on the rest of the trip, but it was still fun.

The highlight of our Amsterdam stay was the Van Gogh Museum on Sunday morning. It was crowded – everything was; though Ghent was very quiet, Amsterdam doesn’t seem to be into its off season yet, if it even has one – but we took our time and saw every single painting, many of which I’d never come across in reproductions. The galleries are organized in chronological order, so you get to trace Van Gogh’s style and state of mind over the years. Superb.

Marken. Photo by Chris Foster

At this point we were just about overwhelmed by the big city atmosphere, so we spent much of the next day and a half in the outlying Dutch towns of Marken and Edam. Flat fields and dykes, cows, cobbled streets and bicycles everywhere – it’s what you’d expect of Holland’s countryside, apart from a surprising dearth of windmills.

Bookish highlights:

  • This Ghent University library – I’m presuming it held Special Collections/rare books:
Photo by Chris Foster

What I read:

  • Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov: A comic novel about a Russian professor on an American college campus. While there are indeed shades of Lucky Jim – I certainly laughed out loud at Timofey Pnin’s verbal gaffes and slapstick falls – there’s more going on here. In this episodic narrative spanning 1950–4, Pnin is a figure of fun but also of pathos: from having all his teeth out and entertaining the son his ex-wife had by another man to failing to find and keep a home of his own, he deserves the phrase Nabokov originally thought to use as a title, “My Poor Pnin”. 

 

  • Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Bosker gave herself a year and a half to learn everything about wine in hopes of passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exam. Along the way she worked in various New York City restaurants, joined blind tasting clubs and attended an olfactory conference. The challenge included educating her palate, absorbing tons of trivia about growers and production methods, and learning accepted standards for sommelier service. The resulting book is a delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine. 

 

  • You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann: And I thought my Airbnb experience was a nightmare? This is a horror novella about a writing retreat gone bad. The narrator is a screenplay writer who’s overdue delivering the sequel to Besties. As he argues with his partner, tries to take care of his daughter and produces fragments of the screenplay, the haunted house in the mountains starts to close in on him. I’ve loved Kehlmann’s work before (especially F), but he couldn’t convince me of the narrator’s state of mind or the peril. I actually found the book unintentionally humorous. 

 

  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker: A Dutch translator and Emily Dickinson scholar has fled a mistake in her personal life and settled in rural Wales at the foot of Snowdon. “She had left everything behind, everything except the poems. They would have to see her through. She forgot to eat.” On her farmstead is a dwindling flock of geese and, later on, a young man surveying for a new footpath. Amidst her quiet, secret-filled days we also learn of her husband’s attempts to find her back in Amsterdam. Bakker’s writing is subtle and lovely, yet the story never quite took off for me. 

 

  • Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach: If you liked Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Miniaturist, you may also enjoy this atmospheric, art-inspired novel set in the 1630s. (Originally from 1999, it’s recently been adapted into a film.) Sophia, married off to an old merchant, falls in love with Jan van Loos, the painter who comes to do their portrait. If Sophia and Jan are ever to be together, they’ll have to scrape together enough money to plot an elaborate escape. I thought this was rather soap opera-ish most of the way through, though I was satisfied with how things turned out in the end. 

 

Plus other books I had on the go (lots of short works and literature in translation):

  • Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
  • Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
  • The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret
  • Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression by David Leite
  • The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
  • Honeydew: Stories by Edith Pearlman
  • A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Miranda Pennington
Extremely cheap souvenirs of Amsterdam to add to my collections: a badge, a pressed coin, and a Van Gogh bookmark.

What have you been reading recently?

 Do you find that books read ‘on location’ never quite live up to your expectations?

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19 thoughts on “Ghent and Amsterdam, and What I Read

    1. It is a truly wonderful museum if you ever get the chance to go. Alternatively, I believe all their holdings are digitized on the website.

      I’d already read half of Cork Dork before we arrived, and Pnin and You Should Have Left are notably short. We had fairly long train rides including Eurostar to get there and back and between the cities. Also, my husband was at a conference for the first few days so I was on my own and kept up a normal work and reading load.

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  1. A lovely trip. I was underwhelmed by Amsterdam (husband also on a conference there) and found it unfriendly, but you’ve reminded me that I’ve been to Marken!

    I like reading books on location, and in fact have just been busily making a little pile including some books set in Cornwall for an upcoming trip. Iceland books in Iceland are also a must.

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    1. Marken was such a lovely little place! Compared to British seaside towns, I thought its waterfront was very tasteful, and we enjoyed the long walk out to the lighthouse and back.

      I have a couple more Amsterdam novels on my TBR I wish I’d been able to get hold of in time.

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  2. What a great trip! The Van Gogh museum sounds wonderful, and I love that everyone seems to have a car *and* a boat. But I think what I love most is that cat boat! What a good idea. I’m truly tempted to build one in my backyard… it doesn’t have to be on water, does it?

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    1. I’m sure you could have a cat rescue centre anywhere, though maybe you’d want a gimmick like an old train car or a gypsy caravan. Then start your little used bookstore in a shed nearby, bake some cakes to sell with tea and coffee, and you’ve got yourself a tourist attraction! I’d come visit 😉

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  3. I’m glad we’re not the only ones to be overwhelmed by big cities with lots of tourists. We’ve been very daunted by Krakow’s tourist scene. And sadly our plans to get up into the mountains foundered because the weather is poor and getting poorer. It sounds as if you had a great time overall.

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    1. Ah, that’s interesting to hear. I wondered if we would have had the Van Gogh Museum to ourselves in mid-January! (You should read Bernard MacLaverty’s wonderful Midwinter Break, set in Amsterdam.)

      We’re not really big city people, so a day and a bit was about all we could manage.

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    1. I have only read two books this year that could be considered horror — the other was Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream — and I rated both 2 stars. So that might just tell you that horror (even mild stuff like this) is really not my cup of tea, or perhaps that something is lost in translation when it comes to scary books.

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  4. Holidays are when I take a break from serious reading – I get so tired from being a tourist, I can’t concentrate on reading, so I never theme my reading to my holiday! Must revisit Amsterdam – I suspect the Van Gogh Museum is busy all year round especially at the weekend when the coach trips arrive. I try to get to these busy museums at opening time in the morning to be first in the queue!

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    1. We got to the Rijksmuseum at 9:40, I think, and had timed tickets for Van Gogh at 10. It was quieter for the first hour or hour and a half we were there, but then by 12 was pretty manic.

      I can’t imagine a day without much reading, let alone a week! Visits with family and friends tend to be the times when I’m so busy I hardly get any reading done.

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